Last season the Carolina Panthers had the coaches, the quarterback and the defense. There was a theme to 2013, and it was this: When the Panthers had to be good, they were.
After losing their first two games by a total of six points, they didn’t lose another close game. They were 5-0 in games determined by four or fewer points.
Winning close games repeatedly is no more a coincidence than losing them. The Panthers earned those victories, and they earned the right to believe. That faith became their personality. If the game was close, it was theirs.
That personality doesn’t carry from season to season. The Panthers again will have to earn it.
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Also, they went 5-1 in the NFC South, losing only at New Orleans. Every season we make the NFC South out to be ferocious. Last season, it was gentle. Atlanta and Tampa Bay went 4-12 and the South finished two games below .500.
I don’t know if the Falcons will ascend this season to the top of the division, but last season they collected injuries. The great receiver Julio Jones returns, and they will not lose 12 games.
The Buccaneers, meanwhile, hired an adult coach and a veteran quarterback, former Panther Josh McCown. I promise McCown can play.
New Orleans, 11-5 last season, added safety Jairus Byrd, who is superb. The offense again ought to be.
So, I don’t see Carolina going 5-1 in the division or 12-4 overall. I don’t see it coming close.
This is unfortunate because it’s more fun to write about a team that wins than a team that loses. I wish I shared Scott Fowler’s youthful optimism and enthusiasm. Scott’s glass is always half full, typically with Mountain Dew or low-fat milk.
Unlike Scott, however, I live in the real world. Yes, there’s a gate in front of the neighborhood, but it’s mostly for show.
I wrote 11 to 15 columns bemoaning the absence of receiver Steve Smith, whom Carolina discarded in March. Somebody asked me at a training camp practice if rookie Kelvin Benjamin would be having the preseason he is if Smith were on the team. Good question; I don’t know.
I do know Cam Newton had a connection with Smith. He looked for Smith on third down and on fourth down.
If Benjamin is the new Smith, who is the new Tedd Ginn Jr.? Ginn averaged a team high 15.4 yards per reception last season and forced coordinators to skew their defense to accommodate his speed. Didn’t work; Ginn caught touchdown passes of 47, 40, 36 and 25 yards.
When Ginn left for Arizona, you could hear the sighs from Bank of America Stadium. He was the one – receiver and return man – the Panthers did not want to lose.
Fortunately, tight end Greg Olsen remains. Olsen does not collect the accolades he should because he doesn’t compile the numbers the elite tight ends do. But he can run a route and, man, can he catch a ball.
I watched the JUGS Football Passing Machine fire hand-numbing passes at Olsen, and he caught the ball so effortlessly that the machine appeared to grow bored.
If Olsen again is Olsen, and Benjamin is Smith, who is Ginn? Somebody has to emerge and Newton has to look for him. We’ve seen no evidence of that.
Carolina’s schedule is said to be difficult, but that’s a guess. The NFL’s power structure changes annually.
I base what I think the Panthers’ record will be not on who they play, but on who they are.
They are a team that will struggle to score. Last season, as the home playoff loss to San Francisco attests, Carolina’s offense could not keep up with the 49ers or other elite teams.
What has changed?
I predict a record of 8-8. If so, this will be the third time in franchise history that Carolina followed a winning season with a .500 season.
If your glass is half full, you can celebrate consecutive seasons without a losing record.
So raise that glass. But disdain the champagne and fill it with Mountain Dew or milk.